A turning point in plastics recycling?

All eyes are currently on Geneva, Switzerland, where members of the 14th Conference
of Parties to the Basel Convention (COP14) are considering a Norwegian proposal to
add plastic to a list of wastes governed by the Convention that will see tighter
restrictions on its trans-boundary movement.

South Africa, which recycles approximately 45% of its plastic waste – significantly
higher than the global average – is among a number of countries supporting the
motion. Should it succeed, it could spark a paradigm shift in how the world deals
with its plastic waste.

Operation National Sword

In January 2018, China – having previously imported and recycled over half the
world’s recyclable waste, but now becoming overwhelmed by an increase in soiled and
contaminated materials – enacted a ban (named ‘Operation National Sword’) on the
import of most waste plastics, triggering a crisis of the world’s recycling economy.

Countries that have historically relied on exporting their waste to Chinese
processors – including the US and countries in the European Union, which export 70
and 95 percent respectively of their plastic waste – are scrambling to find
alternative solutions for how they dispose of their waste. And while greater
quantities of plastics are being landfilled and incinerated, most of this waste is
now being exported to lower-income countries in Southeast Asia, many of which do not
have adequate infrastructure to handle recyclables.

Without adequate management, it is likely that this waste will continue to add to
the plastic contamination of our ocean, already burdened by an estimated 150 million
tonnes of plastic trash.

This is among our most pressing environmental challenges, as our oceans produce 50%
of our oxygen; absorb one third of all CO2 produced on Earth; and are relied on by
over 3 billion people for their livelihoods.

Rethinking plastics

The real solution to this issue is in the circular economy, and this is why COP14 is
so significant: tighter restrictions on how plastic waste is handled and processed
internationally will place more pressure on countries to develop their own recycling
infrastructure to process their own waste.

“We need to seize this momentum to devise a sustainable solution to dealing with
plastic waste that will minimise our ecological impact, now and in the future,”
explains Chris Braybrooke from leading environmental services company Veolia Water
Technologies.

Doing so will require a complete reassessment of the lifecycle and economy of
plastics. “In order to be able to reuse our plastic, we need to shift away from
strong, single-use plastics to polymers that biodegrade quickly or can be recycled,”
Braybrooke says. “Recycling requires products designed to be recycled, and the
variety of resins, additives and mixtures used in today’s plastics industry makes
recycling more complicated.”

Once manufacturers commit to an eco-design plastic, the priority shifts to ensuring
recyclables can be processed with maximum efficiency and speed to ensure recycled
plastic can be supplied more cost-effectively and thus has increased commercial
viability.

Behind some of the world’s most efficient and innovative plastic recycling plants
are technologies and public-private partnerships delivered and managed by Veolia.

#LivingCircular: a new life for plastic

Since 2016, the Veolia Group has been operating three plastic recycling and recovery
sites near Tokyo. In Honjō and Kikugawa, Veolia sorts LDPE, HDPE, PS and PP waste
from the surrounding municipalities and converts it into plastic pellets. In
Ibaraki, the Group uses these granules to make high quality extrusion compounds.
They are blended with polymers in small percentages to create a compound that can be
used as a raw material to manufacture new products in both the plastics industry and
the automotive industry. These facilities produce a combined 45 000 tonnes of
recycled plastic products.

To improve the speed and efficiency of sorting plastic waste for recycling in
Mantes-la-Ville, west of Paris, Veolia’s Research & Innovation department
develops smart robotic solutions that provide a remote sorting mechanism that allow
operators to sort plastic packaging waste remotely via a touch screen.
“Incorporating robotics, digitisation, artificial intelligence and sensor fusion,
Veolia is still looking to improve sorting quality and automation with innovative
tools that are able to recognise, separate and prepare the different types of
plastics,” Braybrooke explains.

In Dagenham in the UK, Veolia’s recycling centre recycles 300 million HDPE bottles
into new bottles every year. This cycle can be repeated up to ten times, meaning the
amount of plastic produced for milk bottles could be reduced by 90%.

“Having proven the technological and commercial viability of localised plastic
recycling, Veolia is ready to help waste processors around the world develop their
own circular economies, and move towards a world of reuse, recycling and zero
waste,” Braybrooke concludes.

In this way, the Group is helping cities and industries reduce pollution and limit
global warming in order to minimise our ecological debt that will need to be
addressed in the future.

In the next #LivingCircular article, broader challenges facing the removal of micro
plastics from water, as well as Veolia technologies that are used to treat this
water, will be addressed.

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